Prison outbreak: PCIJ report warns of risk of COVID-19 contagion in the jail system

Screengrab from PCIJ website.

CHEERS TO the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) for a report posted on April 10 warning of the imminent spread of COVID-19 in one of “the most crowded correctional systems in the world.”


Arrests have spiked since the imposition of the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) in Luzon. PCIJ noted that as of April 2, more than 20,000 had been arrested for quarantine and curfew violations. While most have been released and will face charges once the crisis is over, some 4,000 are still detained in police lockups and are awaiting transfer to city jails.

Raymund Narag, an associate professor at Southern Illinois University and an expert on Philippine jails, shared his insights with PCIJ, among them the consequences of the increase in the detainee population. Government’s detention centers are “extremely congested and do not have the capacity to segregate, much more isolate, infected individuals.”

Narag, along with other humanitarian groups including the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Human Rights Watch (HRW), have been calling for the release of nonviolent, low-risk, and bailable pretrial detainees as well as vulnerable, elderly, and sickly convicts. News reports said that the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) has urged authorities to look into the possibility of releasing first-time offenders of non-violent crimes; that the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) supports the early release of elderly and sick prisoners; and that Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said he has ordered this done with speed.

PCIJ pointed out that policies pertaining to the detention of inmates are sometimes contradictory. It cited Lt. Gen. Guillermo Eleazar, deputy police chief for operations, who said that the police would prefer to release violators after 12 hours to avoid further congestion. But according to Eleazar, they also need to abide by the national and the local government’s orders to keep quarantine violators. The result is a “patchwork of policies” at different levels of government.

Three-tiered prison system

The report discussed the country’s three-tiered prison system: the police-run lockups; BJMP-run (Bureau of Jail Management and Penology) jails for those awaiting trial or serving short terms; and Bucor-run (Bureau of Corrections) facilities for convicted prisoners serving sentences of three or more years.

Each agency has been using a different approach in dealing with the pandemic. The BJMP has implemented the strictest measures—no new detainees and an absolute lockdown that requires jail guards to stay inside jails until the quarantine is lifted. Unlike BJMP, however, local police continue to arrest and detain violators. Similarly, Bucor is still accepting new prisoners despite its current inmate population of 49,584. The report actually examines fundamental problems in the management of the entire prison system. But during the pandemic, health issues should be   paramount concerns.